The custom of giving red envelopes originates in some of the oldest stories of Chinese New Year. As the legend goes, a demon known as ‘Sui’ terrorized children while they slept on New Year’s Eve, and parents would try to keep their children awake all night to protect them. One New Year, a child was given eight coins to play with to keep him awake, but he couldn’t keep his eyes open and eventually drifted off with the coins on his pillow. Sui appeared, but as he went to touch the child, the coins (actually the Eight Immortals in disguise) produced a powerful light that drove the demon away. Today the envelope, symbolic of the coins, is sometimes known as the yasui qian, or “suppressing Sui money”.
The significance of the hóngbāo is actually the envelope itself, rather the money inside. The custom of giving red envelopes originates from another Chinese New Year legend about a demon named ‘Sui’. The mythical monster would come and pat children’s heads while they were sleeping, resulting in the children being scared and developing a high fever. This led to parents trying to keep their children awake all night on New Year’s Eve to protect them from Sui. Legend has it that on one particular year, a child was given eight coins to play with to keep him awake throughout the night. He eventually fell asleep with the coins resting on his pillow. However, when Sui appeared and tried to pat the child’s head, the coins produced a powerful light that frightened the monster away. It is believed that the eight coins were the Eight Immortals in disguise, another important story in Chinese mythology.
Known in China as “hong bao,” red envelopes are passed out by the elderly and married couples to children and young single adults. The envelopes always contain money in an auspicious amount, and are never marked by presenters’ names. In essence, they are like Christmas presents in what they represent — cheery ways to celebrate the holidays. They are tokens of love between families and close friends.